Art by the Book
In celebration of National Book Month, MoMA staff share artworks that connect with literature.
Oct 11, 2023
Art and literature are two avenues that communicate ideas, spark movements, and inspire empathy. Here, MoMA staff share artworks related to what we, and artists, have read.
Jeff Wall. After “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue. 1999–2000
“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free,” wrote Ralph Ellison, and I immediately knew what he meant. Though it’s been more than 70 years since the publication of Ellison’s extraordinary novel Invisible Man, his work continues to speak to the experience of young Black people in America. For National Book Month, I’m thinking about Jeff Wall’s luminous photograph, inspired by the novel’s prologue. I love how Wall faithfully depicts the narrator’s underground lair, with its 1,369 light bulbs. They shine on him, showing that while others refuse to see him, he is nevertheless real.
—Arlette Hernandez, Learning and Engagement
Charles LeDray. Book Ends. 2018–20
I say I make books for a living, but really I’m just part of a big team that makes books. And we have the help of offset presses and bookbinding machinery to create thousands of copies of our books. So I’m fascinated by Charles LeDray’s attention to detail in creating miniature sculptures of well-loved used books. I’m curious about the title too: at first blush it seems to refer to the clay bricks squeezing the books together, but then I think, wait, yeah, how about that feeling you get when a book ends?
—Joseph Mohan, Publications
Aleksandr Rodchenko. Rechevik. Stikhi (Orator. Verse). 1929
I first encountered Aleksandr Rodchenko’s wraparound cover for Orator. Verse, a collection of poems by Sergei Tretyakov, way back in 2002, in the MoMA exhibition The Russian Avant-Garde Book 1910–1934. I was initially drawn in by its simple vibrancy; the stark, eye-catching geometric forms and black-white-red color scheme seem to sum up the arresting style we associate with early Soviet design. But what sticks with me today is its pursuit of the audacious “goal” of Constructivism, abandoning individual artistic expression in favor of a shared visual language—a communal aesthetic toolbox for building a new society.
—Jason Persse, Content Team
Gavin Jantjes. A South African Colouring Book. 1974–75
Seeing “Whites Only” in big, bold letters is jarring. It simultaneously makes you lean in and recoil at its sight. As a Black man living in America (though this work is referring to apartheid South Africa), it’s challenging to not be in a rage all the time, as James Baldwin more eloquently said. I’ve read Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations several times over the years, and the line, “The greatest revenge is to not be like the one who wronged you,” sticks with me, particularly when I’m faced with the rage-inducing imagery in Gavin Jantjes’s portfolio.
—Naeem Douglas, Content Team
Graciela Iturbide. Mujer ángel, Desierto de Sonora (Angel Woman, Sonoran Desert). 1979
In his The Labyrinth of Solitude, Octavio Paz writes that “solitude is the profoundest fact of the human condition.” No other image comes to mind but this: A woman, an angel—obsidian hair flowing, holding a radio. She conquers the rugged terrain of the Sonoran desert gracefully. Where is she headed? Alone. I’ve always admired Graciela Iturbide’s ability to immortalize both stillness and movement in a way that makes viewers forget she was there to capture the image in the first place. As an artist, my work is informed by Iturbide’s photographs, which, to me, are homages to the inexplicably complex nature of human condition in our beloved Mexico.
—Ivanna Rodriguez-Rojas, Learning and Engagement
Salvador Dalí. The Persistence of Memory. 1931
Objects slowly slip away from the memory of inhabitants on an unnamed island in The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa—just like in Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory. In this barren landscape, will you hold on to your humanity, or slither away until you yourself are forgotten?
—Allison Knoll, Marketing
Jennifer Bartlett. Rhapsody. 1975–76
Rhapsody is an interactive piece because it invites the audience to jump in and out of conversation, connecting one everyday object or aspect of life to another. The idea of this inner dialogue reminded me of stream-of-consciousness novels, particularly Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. The novel flows in and out of various historical events, individual conversations, and random mathematical calculations to analyze the relationships between technology and life. Both Jennifer Bartlett’s installation and Pynchon’s novel use an excessive amount of information to emphasize the everyday.
—Laura Popescu, Learning and Engagement
Artists Spark Creativity
MoMA staff share artworks that let us into the artist’s process, and inspire our own creativity.
Jul 26, 2022
Now Is the Time to Read Photography Books
On the occasion of National Photography Month, a curator looks back at some of MoMA’s classic photo publications.
May 27, 2020